01/21/2014 10:09 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

It's Impossible To Dislike George Takei


Writers are supposed to avoid gushing about their interview subjects, and while I've tried to uphold that edict throughout my career, in this case it's out of the question: it is impossible to be in the presence of George Takei and not be captivated by the pure joy that emits from him. It's a shame that Takei's essence can't be bottled and sold for people who have the blues.

Takei is in Park City, Utah in support of the new documentary about his life, "To Be Takei." The film takes us from his childhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War II to his days on "Star Trek" to his current role as an activist for LGBT rights. Again, Takei is as warm of a human being as can possibly exist (in the doc he admits that he's had to have a positive attitude in his life to counter his experience in an internment camp as a child). Ahead, we discuss subjects as wide-ranging as marriage equality to his thoughts on the "Star Trek" spoof, "Galaxy Quest."

You made some comments recently about the Utah governor's opposition to gay marriage. It's pretty obvious the way the tide is going on this issue, why do you think people are still fighting this?
Well, I suspect there is a belief in their position. But it's like, I've used Governor George Wallace as an example. They're going to fight it all the way based on that shred of whatever rationale they can find for it. What we have to define is the separation of church and state. I respect their right to their faith -- as I hope that they will respect mine. But, they have to also understand that faith values cannot be written into civil law, which applies to everybody of many different faiths and many different thoughts.

Well, that's common sense.
Well, because that's the reason that they're using. They're always saying "the Bible" and "tradition" and so forth, you know? And I understand in the Utah appeal, they said "heterosexual couples raise better children." That has been patently proved to be wrong. Gay and lesbian couples are raising beautiful children.

In the documentary you were against having children while your husband was wanted them.
Well, at that time, when we could have adopted children, the social climate was nonexistent for LGBT people and much less children that are growing up in LGBT families -- and we didn't think it would be fair to the child.

Do you feel differently now?
Oh, yes. And it's changed completely. I mean, the very fact that we're now debating marriage equality. The resistors fully recognize that theirs is only a temporary position. And so now, it's one where the thought of adoption is viable, except that now, we're older [laughs]. And we just visited my niece's two little children, and oh, they are a handful! [Laughs] I mean, we love them to death -- they're vibrant, energetic, and all that -- but that's for young people. We can't do it physically.

The film walks us through your time as a child in a Japanese internment camp. What were your thoughts after 9/11 and the way George W. Bush publicly announced support for the Muslim community?
Immediately when 9/11 happened, I think most Japanese Americans of my generation suspected what might be happening. And I happened, at that time, to be the Chairman of the Board of the Japanese American National Museum. And we immediately organized a candlelight ceremony in our plaza inviting leaders of the Arab-American community and older Japanese Americans.

Were you surprised that Bush was so vocal in his support?
No. He had on his cabinet, as his Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta -- a Japanese American who grew up in the Wyoming internment camp, Heart Mountain. And I'm sure they had a conversation or two about his background. And Norman is a friend of mine, Norman Mineta. And he said that they've had discussions and to his credit, he made that statement. However, America really hadn't changed that much. Because you know the whole uproar about a mosque being built three blocks from the World Trade Center?

I live in New York City, I'm very aware.
Well, did you know that a whole continent away in Temecula, a small desert town in southern California, a longtime resident Arab American community -- I think about three generations -- also had gathered enough capital to build their mosque. There was a great uproar not unlike the uproar in New York.

I feel like the uproar in New York was from a small group of people. And the New York Post was involved...
Yeah. And it's genuine. I mean, if you lost your family, your husband or father, you know? But, it was irrational. It was totally irrational. These people are Americans -- as we were Americans -- back at Pearl Harbor. And the hysteria. And in fact, when the government in 1988 apologized for the internment, President Reagan apologized for the internment. They said that it was racism, war hysteria, and lack of political leadership. In the case of 9/11, the president did make that strong statement, so there was that political leadership. But there were others on the city and county and some lower levels that did not share that.

Have you seen "Galaxy Quest"?
[Laughs] Oh, of course we have. To me, that is not a comedy film. It is a study in the realistic documentary.

I've always kind of heard that, and then you see the way Shatner comes off in this documentary and it's like -- that is Tim Allen from "Galaxy Quest." So it was that dead on?
Absolutely! That scene where Tim Allen's shirt gets ripped off and Sigourney Weaver rolls her eyes and, "Oh, there he goes again." Well, that really was happening on the set.

When Shatner is asked why he didn't attend your wedding and he says, "I don't know him," Nichelle Nichols rolls her eyes and says, "That's our Bill!" It's the same eye roll as Sigourney Weaver's eye roll.
[Laughs] Yeah! That Nichelle's eye roll.

You were working in the California government's transportation department in the late '70s. Was there any hesitation to come back and do "Star Trek: The Motion Picture"? In a "I have something else going on" kind of way?
I would say it straddled both. I still am active in the political arena, and I'm an actor too.

But you had done a nice job of moving on from Sulu a bit at that point.

Were you wary to jump back into it?
You know, I'm proud of my association with "Star Trek."

I'd be horrified if you weren't.
Some of my colleagues have, you know, tried to distance themselves. In fact, Leonard Nimoy wrote a book.

"I Am Not Spock," yeah.
Yeah, "I Am Not Spock."

And now he's in all the new ones.
The reason why I'm able to be an advocate who has access to people like you, or a television camera or a radio mic -- is because of "Star Trek." It's given my name and voice a certain currency. And so, I'm perfectly mindful of that. And immediately after "Star Trek"'s cancelation, we couldn't get hired in Hollywood. So I said, well, it's a double-edged sword maybe. So I went to England and I did theatre there. And the plays that I did were totally unrelated to "Star Trek," but when I come out of the stage door, there are the fans with the magazines and the books and the action figures and the games. So, it's "Star Trek" that brings audiences to see me as a Japanese soldier.

In the doc, it's interesting when you say when people ask you these really esoteric "Star Trek" questions and you're like, "That was a different guy that was on that show. I'm a different guy now." But when John Cho took over your role, was that still weird for you?
No. I know the large picture, you know? That happens in show business all the time.

Right, but "Star Trek" had been different. It hadn't for you guys.
It was an action-adventure space opera, you know. That requires a lot of physical activity. Can you picture Bill Shatner running down the corridor as Chris Pine does? It's not a pretty picture [laughs].

Not anymore. He doesn't have his T. J. Hooker physique anymore.
And "Star Trek" is that kind of Chris Pine running around, zipping through space and fighting Klingons -- that kind of show. Life is a series of transitions -- I'm no longer that kid that played Sulu. And the fact that I was able to prolong that into my early 40s was remarkable. But now, in my 70s -- and I'm the youngest member of the "Star Trek" crew -- and I can run, but ... [laughs]

You're still in great physical shape.
But I can't be doing that with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.

In the doc, when Walter Koenig says, "I hope he appreciates what he's doing now," with all the issues you're involved in so publicly -- I get the impression that you do ...
Oh, I do. I do, I do. Yes, indeed.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.



Sundance Film Festival 2014